A tribe of his own

From Bookforum:

Ellison_02 In early April 1968, Ralph Ellison took part in a literary festival hosted by the University of Notre Dame, where he joined the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and William F. Buckley Jr. on the program. When he took the stage on the evening of the sixth to deliver his remarks, the moment could not have been more charged. The nation was in crisis: Two days earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated; across the country, cities had exploded in scenes that seemed uncannily to mirror the apocalyptic final sections of Invisible Man, still one of the handful of truly indispensable American novels. But there would be no resounding statement or mournful eulogy; instead, Ellison talked about the function of the novel in American democracy.

It was a signature Ellisonian gesture, perhaps too modest for the hour, but forceful in its way. Fifteen years before, he had put his invisible man down a hole in an attempt, he said in his 1953 National Book Award speech, “to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.” Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, as intellectuals and writers clenched their fists and took to the barricades, Ellison appealed hopefully to America’s literary past as a way to transcend the country’s racial fractures and ferocious contests of identity.

His stubborn faith in that tradition was breathtaking. Some were baffled by what they saw as his scholarly aloofness; others were outraged.

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